A step too far?

January 13, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

James Dellow really should know better than to send me stuff about public surveillance systems! But seems there’s something disturbing going on with CCTV cams in Wollongong that I have to ask some questions about. There are 40 CCTV cams (yep, 40) in Crown St Mall – the main street and shopping area for Wollongong, which is about 80kms south of Sydney.

During December 2008, another 40 webcams were added to the city’s surveillance system, targeting known trouble spots. Operating 24 hours a day, Wollongong’s city centre CCTV program is the first full internet protocol CCTV street system in Australia. The system’s bells and whistles alert police to crimes in progress and webcams provide footage. So far, your average CCTV surveillance system (let’s put aside for the moment that any would-be criminals would probably take their violence elsewhere, knowing that 80 webcams are staring down at them. And let’s put aside all the research that questions the effectiveness of CCTV as a crime prevention tool).

Wollongong’s CCTV system has taken a disturbing step further it seems to me. Here’s what happened.

  • a youth who was quietly having coffee in the mall was nabbed by police (who happened to be present in the mall due to the CCTV expansion to 80 webcams). He was wanted for an outstanding arrest warrant for dishonesty charges.
  • a second youth was walking through the mall with an adult and was nabbed by police for being in breach of bail conditions.

I can already hear some people saying “yeah, well good: these people were criminals and the CCTV cams did their job”.  I can hear the bleats of people saying CCTV makes them feel secure and will help prevent petty or violent crime. And the usual tiresome drone of “if you having nothing to hide, why worry”.

Well, let’s ask some serious questions before we draw these conclusions:

  • security guards were monitoring the cameras in the mall area. If this CCTV system is being used to reduce antisocial behaviour and criminal activity (which is what authorities always say CCTV cams are there for), then why is this system being used to scan people’s faces, run ID checks and nab people quietly having coffee or walking through the mall?
  • I’ve long suspected that security guards monitoring cameras are doing things like zooming in on faces of people quietly having lunch or coffee; checking out young, attractive women (or men) walking by; or having a laugh over someone’s unfortunate hairstyle or dress sense. Wollongong’s experience would appear to highlight that security guards do just that – clearly they zoomed in on two young kids, somehow ran a security check, found out about their criminal history and the cops (who just happened to be there) swooped.
  • so does this mean that none of us can quietly chat with friends over coffee or lunch without a webcam zooming in on us? Does this mean that the people behind these surveillance systems are running ID checks at the same time they are supposedly preventing petty crime?
  • despite the fact the two kids nabbed had a brush with the law, at the time of their arrest, they were not in the middle of a criminal act. Why are security guards nosing around into the lives of these two kids? Okay, they probably deserve to be nabbed but the issue for me is not whether they are petty criminals. The issue is why are people behind security cameras going one step further than they should be – retrieving information about people; zooming in on faces of people having coffee; running security checks and so on.
  • and how did the security guards know that these two naughty kids had an outstanding arrest warrant or were in breach of bail conditions? Is Wollongong’s public surveillance system linked up to other systems such as central police databases?

I will have to check this but it’s my understanding that covert visual surveillance is against the Privacy Act 1988. Visual surveillance in the “public interest” may be permitted for law enforcement authorities to deal with serious indictable offences. But if webcams are being used in a shopping area for what seems to me is clearly covert surveillance, well I reckon that could be in breach of the Privacy Act and the system is vulnerable to misuse or abuse.

What bothers me even more is the issue of equity – in contemporary society, we seem to have no choice but be surveilled via public CCTV cams, biometrics and so on. Authorities behind these surveillance systems can follow you around a shopping mall, down the street or through an airport – but we aren’t in a position to watch the watchers. It’s the issue of what sort of surveillance – overt or covert? And seems to me our society is hurtling right down the path of covert surveillance.

Unless I have my definition of democracy wrong, it means government by the people or their elected representatives (aka representative democracy). And this implies power lies with the people (citizens) and that the elected representatives are accountable to citizens. We, the citizens, can directly participate in decision-making. So there is no place under this definition for covert surveillance (aka secrecy) where citizens are unaware they are being watched or were not involved in the decision to permit covert surveillance. Transparency is paramount.

I am unsure whether there are signs in Crown St Mall saying that CCTV cameras are present so citizens can be informed. James, can you help me out – any signage? And what do you think about the CCTV cams in Wollongong?

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Entry filed under: CCTV, Public webcams, Surveillance society. Tags: , .

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